A corrupt region

  • Corruption as a regional issue must figure prominently at the upcoming Saarc Summit in Kathmandu
- Narayan Manandhar
A corrupt region

May 27, 2014-

A recently released corruption report by Transparency International (TI) warned that corruption is on the rise in South Asia and a failure to tackle it would threaten the region’s economic progress as well as efforts to share that progress equitably. “Despite 6 percent average economic growth in the past 20 years, more than 40 percent of the world’s poor live in South Asia,” writes the report. South Asia is seemingly mired in a vicious circle of high corruption and extreme poverty. But it is difficult to understand whether corruption is breeding poverty or vice-versa. Other sub-regions like East Asia, South East Asia and Pacific Island countries, which were once no less corrupt than South Asia, have managed to substantially control corruption, and even if not, have advanced substantially in terms of economic development.  

Taking the economic growth rate of India, The Economist, in its October 22-28, 2011 edition, warned that business firms in India had thrived in spite of a weak state (read: corruption). Therefore, India needs to make sure that businesses do not thrive because of a weak state. Many of the recent political changes in India—from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s spectacular success in the recent elections, Anna Hazare’s mass movement for the Lok Pal Bill to the subsequent rise of the Aam Aadmi Party—smack of an anti-corruption agenda. Another interesting country to watch is China where President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption policy of taming both “meat-eating tigers” and “low-level flies”, implying grand and petty corruption, is very much in the glare of the media. Basically, China is pursuing a top-down anti-corruption agenda while India is adopting a bottom up approach. But we have yet to see how South Asia as a whole ends up fighting corruption.

Too relaxed

When it comes to combating corruption, South Asian countries tend to take a relaxed approach. The TI report states that anti-corruption agencies in South Asia are “tied up and toothless”. The effectiveness of these bodies has been seriously undermined by systematic political interference and manipulation, either through deliberate restrictions on their powers to tackle corruption or through tight government control over appointments, transferrals and removal from office of senior staff.

By placing close allies in key positions within these institutions, governments in the region are able to exercise strong influence on decisions that may negatively affect them.

Here are some illustrations on how corruption or rather anti-corruption efforts have taken a relaxed attitude in South Asia. Unfortunately, even TI report—supposed to be an assessment of integrity system studies—failed to take a note of its own performance. As per TI’s own Corruption Perception Index, Bhutan and Afghanistan are at the top and bottom of the ranking in South Asia. Paradoxically, both countries do not have TI chapters. Bangladesh, another corrupt country in South Asia, has the largest TI chapter in the world, if one defines the size in terms of people employed. With 400 staff members, it is the largest chapter, bigger than TI headquarters in Berlin. Nepal, another country with an old TI chapter is probably the most inept, indolent chapter, now infested with retired civil servants. Discounting the quality of the report, it is amazing how the same person has been commissioned to draft the National Integrity System report again and again. Along these lines, it is also surprising that the TI report is quiet on the controversial appointment of Nepal’s anti-corruption chief when it has managed to pass a harsh comment on the appointment of Khil Raj Regmi as head of government.

Normalised corruption

Fifteen years ago, the UNDP Human Development Report for South Asia (1999), reporting on the pervasiveness of corruption in South Asia, outlined four distinct features of corruption in the region. In South Asia: corruption occur upstream, not downstream; corruption money has wings, not wheels; corruption often leads to promotions, not prison terms; and corruption occurs with millions of people in poverty. Other than a gradual intensification, these features have hardly undergone any changes. In Pakistan, when you say Mr Twenty Percent, everyone knows who you are referring to. In India, outgoing PM Man Mohan Singh is said to have three problems—3G, CWG and Sonia.

Writing in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 11, Randy David sought to explain how corruption is being normalised in the Philippines. He had two reasons to offer. One, the problems of corruption is treated as an unalterable given and so, except in cases of glaring abuse, the law turns a blind eye and tends to be lenient. In Nepal, we seem to provide 20 percent bonus for officials convicted of corruption. Two, the corrupt themselves do not see their acts as criminal or immoral. This phenomenon is equally applicable across South Asia. When asked jokingly to differentiate between corruption in India and Nepal, a friend responded, “In India, if you bribe a public officer, you are assured of services but in Nepal, there is no guarantee.”

As a region

The situation of state-level anti-corruption agencies is no less pathetic in South Asia. There is now a burgeoning tradition— the chief of the anti-graft agency in Sri Lanka is a retired Supreme Court judge; in Nepal, a retired secretary; and in Pakistan, from the army. Everyone knows the underlying logic. Anti-corruption agencies in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan were without a head for a prolonged period of time. These were strategically orchestrated-an indication of the politicisation of those agencies. The former Chief Commissioner of Nepal’s anti-graft agency, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, used to boast with pride with this scribe when delegates from Bangladesh and Bhutan visited him for advice in 2002-2004. The situation has not yet turned topsy-turvy but Nepal can definitely learn from Bhutan.

A decade ago, in 2004, in view of the commonality of administrative traditions and governance processes, a TI study had recommended using the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) as a regional platform to develop programmes to address corruption and poor governance at a regional level. However, to my knowledge and understanding, save one occasion, Saarc Summits have refrained from addressing the issue of corruption and good governance even as Summit declarations and resolutions are perforated with issues like drugs, human trafficking and terrorism. With the forthcoming 18th Saarc Summit scheduled for November and with so much blowing of the corruption winds in South Asia in general and India in particular, it is time that we do something at a regional level, lest we become a basket-case when it comes to fighting corruption. As an endnote, with the exception of Bhutan, India was the last country in South Asia to ratify the UN Convention against corruption.

Manandhar is a freelance consultant with an interest in corruption and governance issues

Published: 28-05-2014 08:53

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